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AA cost-cutting moves face a global backlash

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The Architectural Association is facing an international backlash over its plans to make its entire publications and exhibitions departments redundant

The AJ last week revealed that 16 staff at the architectural school in Bedford Square, London had received letters informing them that a consultation period on their redundancy had begun.

Leading figures including architectural historian Joseph Rykwert and Architecture Foundation director Ellis Woodman immediately criticised the cost-cutting measures and said they would spell the end of the AA’s highly-respected magazine AA Files.

The AA’s latest moves have now been challenged by leading voices in world architecture, including New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the Chicago-based Society of Architectural Historians, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH) and Australian architect Peter Wilson.

Last Friday, MoMA’s Martino Stierli, who is Philip Johnson chief curator of architecture and design, together with two fellow curators sent a letter to AA president David Porter seen by the AJ.

The letter expressed their ‘strongest concern’ and asked Porter to reassess the AA’s ‘drastic’ move.

‘Shutting down the AA Files would not only be a most regrettable loss for architecture culture and publishing at a time when thoughtful reflection on our discipline is most needed; it would potentially also greatly damage the reputation of the venerable institution that makes this publication possible,’ the letter concluded.

In an open letter to the AA Council, Wilson accused the school of ‘draconian self-mutilation’ and said he would rather see his own drawings within the AA’s archive ‘go up in flames’ than allow the publications department to be closed.

Wilson, a partner at Münster-based Bolles+Wilson, is a recipient of the Australian Institute of Architects’ Gold Medal and taught at the AA in the 1970s and 80s under then chairman and AA Files’ founder Alvin Boyarsky.

He called AA Files a ‘cornerstone of the school’s international reputation’ and questioned how the school had ‘shot itself in the foot to this extent?’

The letter from the ETH was sent on Sunday to AA interim director Samantha Hardingham and was signed by figures at the Swiss institute’s architectural history and theory department including its head, Laurent Stalder.

They praised AA publications and AA Files in particular, saying its current editors had made it into a ‘unique intellectual platform’.

The letter concluded: ‘Making AA publications redundant would, in our opinion, not strengthen the AA School of Architecture. On the contrary, it would deeply weaken the school’s intellectual quality – precisely the aspect which has retained our admiration.’

The AJ understands that the board of the Society of Architectural Historians in Chicago voted unanimously yesterday (Sunday) to support AA publications.

The proposals for redundancies are understood to have been made by the AA’s interim director Samantha Hardingham and signed off by AA Council.

The AA has been contacted for comment on the latest criticism.

Last week, an AA spokesperson said: ‘Over the coming weeks the AA will be restructuring some of its non-academic areas. The actions will in no way affect any of the current day-to-day operations of the school or compromise its units, courses and programmes.

‘The AA is founded on the idea that it must know when to change. This restructuring is being undertaken in the best interests of the AA, and is necessary to support its sustainable future.’


Jack Self, architect and curator 

For an interim director to make such a sweeping and fundamental change, we can assume that the situation she is facing is urgent. This move will very likely cost Samantha Hardingham the directorship because it appears to be unpopular with students. Given that the AA finances stem almost completely from student fees (and particularly from international students), we may assume this cost-saving exercise reflects either changing application figures (post-Brexit) or existing financial shortfalls that were a legacy of Hardingham’s predecessor. In either case, this terrible prospect of losing exhibitions and publications, including AA Files, is a wake-up call to the AA that they must diversify their revenue streams. 

The AA Files is without a doubt the finest architectural journal to exist for half a century. Its loss would immeasurably impoverish the quality of discourse and intellectual rigour of the Architectural Association. In other words, it is unthinkable. Likewise, the AA exhibitions team occupies a central role in the development and direction of global architectural culture. For an interim director to be making such extreme proposals for cost-saving, the situation at the AA must be very grave indeed.

Jeremy Dixon, Dixon Jones 

The AA is absolutely dependent on maintaining its cultural and intellectual reputation and that has always come, to an extent, through their publications. They contain topics you can’t find anywhere else. There is a problem with carelessly throwing away something with unique properties.

Jonathan Sergison, Sergison Bates Architects 

It seems like such complacency to squander something of international standing like AA Files. And to lay off people who have been dedicated members of staff for so many years is a brutal way of operating. The AA Files is an exceptional publication and Tom Weaver a great editor.


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Readers' comments (2)

  • Inevitable change in a digital era unfortunately

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  • The AA Files is one of the finest architectural publications in the world. It has consistently produced extraordinary work, unearthing little known architects and buildings that would not find a voice anywhere else, as well as illuminating the lives and work of some of our best designers and educators. The recent articles on Patrick Hodgkinson and Dalibor Vesely (my old tutor from Unit 1) are exemplars of this achievement. Where else would you find, in Dalibor’s case, an article about somebody’s book collection, and a series of photographs of their apartment? Yet the article has added to our knowledge of one of the most original architectural thinkers of the modern era.

    No doubt there are issues of financial governance and probity to consider, but the Council must stay any decision that affects AA Files, and they must seek some way of funding it going forward, if necessary consulting with members and alumni. Many years ago, under Mohsen Mostafavi’s directorship, I and many others made modest but regular monthly contributions to the AA to help it with the purchase of the lease at Bedford Square. I would be more than happy to reinstate my direct debit, on the understanding that it is used to save the AA Files.

    Alan Power AADipl RIBA

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